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The Intimate Palestra is Truly a Public Place
Philadelphia Inquirer


by Eric Zillmer

Philadelphia Inquirer, December 04, 2005

Right in the midst of our city is one of the most sacred sports buildings in the nation's history - the Palestra. The site of the first NCAA tournament game, the Palestra has a remarkable history. It has hosted more games, more visiting teams, and more NCAA tournaments than any other facility. Built in 1926 and opened in 1927, the Palestra is the oldest major college arena still in use today. The question beckons: What sort of athletic rites are being so loyally and regularly celebrated in the Palestra? Palestra is Latin for a public place in ancient Greece for training and practice.

The original Palestra was built in the third century B.C. as part of Olympia, the ancient Greek Olympic complex, and served as a practice facility for training athletes in boxing, wrestling and jumping. It was a rectangular enclosure - 66 by 66 meters - and attached to the gymnasium. The modern Palestra was built only for basketball, a novel idea when it was conceived. There must have been doubts as to whether such a sports-specific venture could succeed. It did - magnificently.

Anyone who has watched a basketball contest inside the Palestra knows that it is both a big and a small place. The Palestra has a seating capacity of 8,700, yet it has an intimate feel, the fans are nearly on top of the court, and the acoustics are deafening. Its exterior resembles a modest 1920s Philadelphia warehouse. But inside you will find nothing less than a sanctuary for college basketball. For home and visiting teams, it is an exhilarating place to play.

Walking into the Palestra is like walking back into history, to a simpler and purer time before the notion of modern luxury boxes, corporate suites and supersized scoreboards. The stewards of the building must have been under great pressure to modernize the arena and increase its paltry 380 chair-back seats. But to Penn's credit, it did not, and the Palestra has been preserved as a jewel among sports arenas.

The reason for its success lies not only with the building, but also with the fact that the Palestra is in Philadelphia, arguably the epicenter of college basketball; six Division I teams play in the city. Sports are the signature of Philadelphia. In a city of neighborhoods, sports are our common bond. Philadelphia has always been somewhat of a melting pot, and different socioeconomic, sectarian and ethnic groups are drawn together because of sports in a common Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

The Palestra has an unpretentious, Quaker meetinghouse type of quality, including skylights, that welcomes people. It has lived up to its name, as a public place. Spectating and performing in the Palestra are not individual but collective experiences.

On any given Saturday afternoon, the game of basketball magically provides us with a manageable and accessible slice of life. In the Palestra, play often takes over with a life of its own. Only the moment matters, though some of those moments may last a lifetime.